My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Jodi Paloni, author of the debut collection of linked stories, They Could Live With Themselves (Press 53), a runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She won the 2013 Short Story America Prize and placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Her stories have appeared in a number of print and on-line literary journals: Green Mountains Review, Carve Magazine, upstreet, Whitefish Review, Contrary Magazine, Literary Mama, and others. Jodi holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. A Vermonter for over twenty-years, she recently moved to the Maine coast where she works as a freelance editor, teacher, and writing coach. You can learn more about her at www.jodipaloni.com
My First Unanswerable Question: On “Aboutness”
A first timer, I get caught every time I’m asked: What’s your book about? I feel panic uncurl in my gut, rise to my chest, bud to beanstalk, looking for light. I should know this, right?
A few years ago, I observed a pattern that took place in my work. Without exception, I begin by placing a character alone—dancing in her living room, tinkering in his shed, standing on the edge of an abandoned swimming pool—or I begin with characters who are relatively alone—a grandfather pushing a small child on a swing, a divorcee interacting with a sick cat brought home from the shelter. But they don’t stay alone for too long. Enter a significant counterpart—a pregnant stranger, a new love, a lost love, three teenage girls skipping school on a park bench, a silent hiker wearing orange sneakers, a disquieted man seeking shelter in a storm.
I made the decision that what these stories were about was the interplay of solitude and communion, agency spurred by an antagonist, how no person is an island, and, yet, how we’re often faced with the question: Even among others, aren’t we still very much alone? And have we made peace with that?
I’m not certain if knowing this did anything for me, or for the work. I didn’t have any of this understanding in the forefront my consciousness when I sat down to write. When I faced the blank page, I wrote a character, a scene. That my characters were often alone became humorous to me. There it is again! I’d exclaim to my husband or to friends in my writing group. There it is again.
Then came the blurbs. Another first. Another panic. Respected authors, favorite ones of mine, had formulated meaning from their take on the stories.
...the eternal tug between giving to others and giving to oneself. (Philip Graham)
It is the life as lived, complete with shocks, with strange alliances... (Robin Black)
...humane writer, with her ear turned to the quiet, pivotal moments... (Alexis Smith)
Pivotal moments in which a new character walks onto the stage. Whew! My first readers, they got it! Then, later, came this…a blurb from Lori Ostlund, generous reader, outstanding writer:
Her characters—teachers and students, business owners and artists—surprise themselves (and us) with realizations that, quite often, arrive late, but never—Paloni assures us—too late…reminding us of the ways that we are all connected and the ways that we must each, alone, learn to live with ourselves.So, yes, that’s four, a quorum. “Aboutness” confirmed.
Jodi, these stories are about desire.
Are they? Really?
If so, then, where does desire fit in with the concept: alone and with others? And aren’t these stories really about the significance of place, small-town Vermont, and aren’t they about any old town USA? And what about obsession? Yes! Definitely! These stories are about obsession! And on, and on.
Next question: Does my confusion regarding “aboutness” have to do with being a first-timer? Do seasoned authors with more books—two, three, four—know what their books are about? Here I go again, answering confusion with complexity.
Then it comes to me, a realization, late, surely, but maybe, as Lori suggests of my characters, not “too late.” My stories are about questions.
Why this? Why now? Who? What next? How?
So I turn, as I often do, to Rilke. His words will soothe my debut jitters. I lean on the classic passage he once wrote to a first timer, the proverbial newbie, the young poet...
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”What is your book about? Hmmm...
—Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet
Maybe next time, my second time or my third, I’ll know.